Ideas for Teaching with Labster (Part 1) - The Labster Podcast Episode 3
April [00:00:04] Hey, everyone, my name is April Ondis, and I'm a blogger for Labster, the creator of virtual lab simulations for science students. As always, I'm proud to say that Labster is guided by our mission to empower the next generation of scientists to change the world and contribute to solving global challenges. If you're an educator listening to this podcast, we know you also share that mission. So thank you. And let's get started. With me, as always, is my friend and fellow Labsterite, SJ Boulton. SJ is an educational designer and former university lecturer who now develops new Labster simulations for high school, college and university science students.
April [00:00:52] This episode is Part One of an exceptional two part conversation with Dr. Felicia Vulcu and Dr. Caitlin Mullarkey. Let's dive right in.
April [00:01:08] Today's episode is about the topic of innovative teaching with technology enhanced learning tools. And today is very special because we are joined by two amazing people, both scientists and instructors at McMaster University, a public research institution in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. So let us introduce you to our two special guests. We'll start with Dr. Felicia Vulcu. Felicia is an associate professor of biochemistry and biomedical sciences at McMaster. Her primary teaching focus is on laboratory based courses and curriculum design. She uses a number of teaching practices, such as team think tanks, flipped classroom, case studies and Labster virtual labs that allow students to apply basic biochemistry techniques to biomedical problems like drug discovery. She is also delved into online learning with the creation of an online biochemistry course designed to introduce students to biochemistry fundamentals. Welcome to the podcast, Felicia.
Felicia [00:02:08] Thank you so much, April, and thank you for having me here today.
April [00:02:12] Excellent. Thank you. And now let's meet Dr. Caitlin Mularkey. Caitlin is a teaching professor and associate chair of undergraduate education in the Department of Biochemistry and Biomedical Sciences at McMaster. Her ongoing research projects include evaluating the integration of virtual reality labs into both laboratory and non-laboratory courses, technology enhanced learning, and other innovative methods to bridge the gap between scientific theory and practice. So welcome to the podcast, Caitlin.
Caitlin [00:02:44] Thank you for having me. It's a pleasure to be here.
April [00:02:46] Well, thank you so much. And both of our guests have won awards for their teaching at McMaster University. They've also worked together to design and launch a massive open online course called DNA Decoded. And just so you know, their course is available on Coursera and will provide a link to it in the notes under this podcast. So it's so exciting for us to have the two of you here. I know SJ and I are both full of questions for you, so let's just dive right in.
SJ [00:03:14] Oh, I am so excited to start talking with you two. This is a little background some of our listeners might remember Caitlin and Felicia from when we launched our first virtual learning conference. So inspired back in October in 2020. That was the beginning of the full term for a lot of people, I'm pretty certain. But Felicia and Caitlin, during your session in the conference, you both kind of shared your hopes for the coming cohort on two of your biochemistry courses. And I think was it that one was intended to be in person and one was intended to be completely online, but both ended up being delivered remotely. Is that right?
Felicia [00:03:48] Yes, that is one hundred percent correct. One of the courses is intended to be an online course that's offered through an online portal called eCampusOntario. So it's available to just about everybody that wants to take it. And the other course is a lab course. It was intended to be in person, but it had to change to an online environment due to the pandemic.
SJ [00:04:11] Oh, my word. So now we're talking in January 2021. And I was wondering, reflecting back to the beginning of time, did you meet or adjust your plans at all, or did you manage to really work with what you had? Has anything changed since the last three months?
Caitlin [00:04:27] So everything has changed and whether or not we've had to pivot significantly or just a little bit really has been informed by the type of course.
Caitlin [00:04:37] And Felicia has really just been a hero through this, all because she teaches lab courses and all of our lab courses are online. So that has taken a tremendous effort to try and recapitulate what you would do in person in the laboratory setting, in an online environment. Some of the lecture-based courses, they're a little more amenable to the online delivery with all of the video conferencing platforms we have. But it has taken a lot of work and a lot of innovation to really give the students the same experience that they would have in person.
SJ [00:05:11] Yeah, I imagine it must do. One thing that really struck me as well, and I wondered if maybe I don't know, Felicia, I remember you mentioning that you had these like nurture sessions and "Need a Boost" sessions that ran alongside the students being on the course. So like almost like a tutorial time or time online for people to talk. Did you keep those up or did you find that they were needed more? How did they go?
Felicia [00:05:34] Yes. So I teach one course that is in a third-year laboratory course. It's eight months long and it's a third-year course in a program called Biomedical Discovery and Commercialization. These students come from very diverse academic backgrounds. So some have had extensive lab experience and others have had almost no lab experience. I do provide these "Need a Boost" or NAB, "Grab a NAB" - I like naming things - sessions and they're meant for students to just come in and ask questions about the content, but also relieve the stress. I'm huge on creating a community and a safe, nurturing environment in my courses first and foremost, and content comes later.
SJ [00:06:15] I can imagine that you're in times like this where students may not even be perhaps interacting in person with each other - I know in the UK, certainly, some of the dorms at universities have been on lockdown. So students haven't been able to really interact with anybody outside of their corridor, which is wild. But I can really see value in that pastoral support that you're offering. That sounds really positive.
Felicia [00:06:38] Yeah, it's been working really well for this particular course. It depends on the course. So, for example, I have a 160-student course, second-year students just coming into our program. It's a little bit more difficult to create this "Need a Boost." I only see them for about five hours a week. So I tried to create that as part of my lecture. So we do lots of things like I use Mentimeter to connect with them. But then we also created a Microsoft Teams channel that's called our 2L06 Community. So we share cooking recipes, pictures, pets, and keep students connected in that way. And it has worked tremendously.
SJ [00:07:13] There's so much value in the random channel. I know, like it's one of my favorite channels that we have here at Labster.
Felicia [00:07:19] I agree. And I do this in person normally because I see my students a lot and I really strive really hard to create a safe, nurturing community, because when that happens and the students feel respected, it's inclusive and they feel comfortable. They take risks with presentations and other things and they know that they're not going to be ridiculed. And it's amazing.
SJ [00:07:42] That's so valuable. So I wondered I know you do a lot, both Caitlin and Felicia, I know you do a lot with virtual labs, not just Labster, but a lot of different online tools. And I was wondering, is there a kind of interplay between the students doing work or completing tasks within those virtual sessions and these online tutorial sessions? Or if I very much separate, do you find that those tutorials or spaces online support reflection on the online learning, or is it very much pastoral? Are they separate?
Caitlin [00:08:16] Yeah, so we use a lot of different virtual lab simulations or online tools in all of our courses. And I think that in the current status of our courses are delivered, they usually fall more within the kind of education sphere rather than the pastoral space. We really try to, as Felicia was saying, foster a sense of community, but we try to do that in an informal way and in a way that students feel is separate from their performance or any sort of assignment or assessment that they might have.
SJ [00:08:51] That makes sense. Totally. It brings me to a question around kind of support of students alongside assessment. And I know that a lot of your curriculum design is based around the type of assessment that you're going to be doing and making sure that they fit with the teaching strategy, they're both kind of cross-informed. Caitlin, you previously mentioned that Felicia uses Labster in the course and it is done for marks, so it contributes to the grade of the student. So that summative approach is used in the courses. And I was wondering, what was your rationale for choosing that approach in making it a graded exercise as opposed to just allowing the students to use the Labster to gauge their own knowledge or find the gaps? Was there a rationale?
Caitlin [00:09:32] Yeah, I mean, so we were speaking specifically to virtual lab simulations. We have two main ways that we integrate them into our curriculum. So one is exactly as you said, we do it for marks and the other is really more for play. And it really helps the students in advance of the actually coming into the laboratory class period to go through the protocol, to familiarize themselves with the equipment, get an idea of the data they might collect and how they might analyze it. So when we use it for marks, what I'll kind of backtrack and say is we let the students play with the simulations more than one time. So, yes, we add it for marks, but we let them have multiple attempts at the simulation. And the point of the graded exercises in that case is really to reinforce the lecture material. So we've really carefully curated the lecture content and selected simulations that help to then reinforce the concept and support student learning. So yes, we count it for marks, but we let the students play with it a couple of times and then and then we take their highest mark from all of the attempts that they've done. You know, it's a way to kind of nudge up against the interface of work and play. It is a way that they can still play around, have fun, but at the same time they're learning and they're seeing the concepts in a different way and in a more interactive way.
SJ [00:11:00] Sure. I guess there's always, we talked a little in our last podcast, April and I, about the lens with which a student approaches a simulation. So is it for fun, is it for investigation, for curiosity, or is it because my lecturer made me do it, you know. And those two lenses of approach can sometimes really influence the way the student interacts with the content. So "I just want to get it done so it's done" or "Actually, I'm really interested in this. I just want to play around with it and learn.".
Felicia [00:11:30] For my lab course, the way that I approached it, exactly what Cait said about the marking, they have, I think it's worth very little like five percent of their mark. And they get multiple attempts and they have the highest one. But what I really wanted to do is I wanted it to be more like a gamified intervention type idea. And so what I do with these simulations, when we're in person, obviously, is I play with them in the lecture. So I have my simulation on the screen and they have their laptops out. They have multiple attempts, so it's not like this counts for anything. And I narrate the simulation as we go through and I am able to point out the things that they will see in the lab because this is basically a pre-lab. So if we do a PCR lab as part of our course, which is a directed research project, so we're PCR amplifying our gene of interest, I will the PCR Labster simulation will be shown and I can definitely point out what's important for our lab within the context of the actual simulation. And the students, I mean, I've surveyed them, and they love it. They absolutely love watching me fumble around because I am not, I don't play video games. So they oftentimes help me, but I also help them. So I tend to run around the room and try and get them to the next step and they help each other as well, especially in the little quizzes that they have. So it really builds that safe, nurturing community just by playing a Labster simulation in the class time.
SJ [00:12:57] So just to understand further, I'm a student in your class. I'm sitting in my tiered lecture hall with my laptop in front of me. You've got Labster open, so, for example, on the big screen at the front. Am I playing the simulation at the same time as you? Or are you playing it and showing it to me and then I go and play it later?
Felicia [00:13:14] I am playing it and I welcome everybody playing it so we can help each other. I don't force people and then they have multiple attempts. So if they don't like this one, they can move on and do something else. So yeah, I never force my students to do any of these things. But normally what they do is they come in and they play, they play alongside me. And it's it's a super fun day.
SJ [00:13:35] Do the voiceovers and music get in the way for you then, or is it something that you think is useful when they're by themselves and doing that?
Felicia [00:13:41] Yeah, I think especially the voice overs are important, especially for accessibility. The music I always leave on and bring it down because I love it. It's very relaxing.
SJ [00:13:52] I'm going to repeat that back to our development team.
Felicia [00:13:55] I like the music. I like the music.
Felicia [00:13:58] But it's basically a way to engage. I always try to find ways to engage with my students and let them help them to open up to me and realize that they're going through a course, sure. But I want them to have an experience and to really enjoy what they're doing. I want them to have enjoyment out of university and out of their courses so that they get interested in the content, but also help them discover themselves, because that's that's the purpose of university. It's not just coursework. It's also discovering who you are.
SJ [00:14:28] Hmm. Interesting. Yes. I guess it's sometimes the first time that a lot of students have thought about the topic they're studying in an in-depth way. I know when I was a student, I chose - my first degree is in pharmacology - which isn't a topic I never learned at school. I learned biology, and I did some human biology, but I never focused on pharmacology. And I was interested in drug design and treatments. But it was something that I went into maybe with my eyes not fully open. So having that time to really orient myself with the topic was really valuable. And so it's cool to hear that this is an approach that you found to help students open their eyes a little to the topic that they've chosen to immerse themselves in.
Felicia [00:15:06] Yeah, I mean, I think it's really important to reflect in everything that we do. And I think reflection is something that we need to learn. It's not intuitive for everybody. I learned how to reflect in my thirties. Oh, no. I mean, like just yesterday when I turned 30. Now I'm just getting to reflect in my thirties. And now that I'm well, I mean, in my forties, I reflect all the time. And I realized that I didn't know how to reflect. And also, you know, as a researcher, as a scientist, we reflect a lot when we look at our experiments and we design new ones, we just don't call it that oftentimes. So we don't know that we're going through it. And I think it's important for students to get a basic structure of what it's like to reflect. And it's not the same for everybody.
SJ [00:15:49] I completely agree. That's so interesting. Oh, now I'm all thought-y! I did want to shift gears just a little bit because something that started to come through is this idea of looking and curating the lecture content for a course and curating that against the simulation. So Caitlin, I know curriculum design is something that's very close to your heart and I was wondering when you decided to implement Labster within your curriculum and you were putting that together in terms of activities and objectives, topics. Was it a case that Labster just slotted in with your curriculum or did you feel that you had to strip it back and rebuild in order to incorporate the tool with a new course? How did it work for you?
Caitlin [00:16:31] Well, and I think Felicia can chime in here, because when we have a very large survey course that I teach now that uses Labster, but Felicia was really the brains behind the operation and she's the one that actually made the modules and initially integrated the Labster simulations. I've made some changes in the two years that I've been teaching it, but this was really a project that was she got the funding for it, she did all the legwork in actually migrating a course of 600 students that used to be in-person to a completely online environment. But to answer your question, I think it's a little bit of both. Right? I think that this is the course that we're speaking to is a basic biochemistry and metabolism course. So it's biochemistry for non-biochemists and metabolism for students that aren't going to go and do that at a higher level. And so Labster offers just so many amazing simulations and the number of simulations, it just increases. It seems to increase exponentially every year. And in teaching a core biochemistry course, there are some obvious simulations that really complement the material. I think where we got a little more creative was with the integration of the metabolism simulations and thinking about how the content could be reflected in some of the simulations that Labster offers. But I'm also going to welcome Felicia to chime in here to talk about the initial iteration of the course, which I believe had six simulations, Felicia?
Felicia [00:18:06] Yes.
Caitlin [00:18:07] Yeah, and we've bumped that up to 10. So now when the students take the students to take the course to 10 simulations over the course of the term.
Felicia [00:18:14] Well, thank you, Cait. Eloquent as ever. So I agree with everything that you said initially. We used Labster because we look at the audience that we had, and this is hundreds of students, many of whom are taking this course for prerequisites to applying for medical school. And so we realized that the content we're giving them is a very basic biochemistry content that's really important to a lot of things. But what we really wanted to do was to teach them a specific fundamental biochemistry concept, whether it be DNA, proteins or metabolism, and then show them how it applies to a biomedical context. So that's what I really loved about Labster, is that it doesn't just show you the, you know, the protocol or the lab or whatever, it wraps it up in a really awesome and relevant biomedical problem.
Felicia [00:19:05] And so in this lecture course, the point was to actually add the Labster simulations at the end of each module so you can show the students why learning these fundamental concepts is important to the application in a biomedical setting.
SJ [00:19:21] That's super interesting. I'd like to pick up on the storylines just a little bit because it's something that, bearing in mind I'm a Brit, it's something we have a bit of a Marmite response to - people, either if we like it or they hate it - but yeah, the storylines that are contained within Labster, I know some educators have voiced an opinion that maybe it prevents or can sometimes feel it can put up against the topics that they're trying to relate their course to. So say, for example, if we have a very heavy emphasis like we do in our antibody simulation, which is about blood typing for prenatal testing, I believe if we're not talking about pregnancies or anything like that, that can seem like a really odd storyline to have when you're trying to teach about antibodies. So there can be like a dissonance there, cognitive dissonance for the students if they haven't done that already. Whereas other simulations, so one of our newest released simulations, ENQ, that really doesn't have a huge storyline in the same way. It's not as applied, but the story is found more in the play of building a thing and seeing if it works and testing it. So the storyline is more inherent in the action rather than the application in real world. So I wondered, have you ever encountered the storylines kind of creating a dissonance with your teaching or do you find them good every time?
Caitlin [00:20:41] We love storytelling in our teaching and I know Felicia is especially big on that and has really designed some very cool seminar series around storytelling in science. So I actually see it as an advantage. Going back to and echoing what Felicia said previously, it's a way to really engage students and to show them how the concepts that they learn in lecture, which are sometimes abstract, right, and hard to understand how it applies to their everyday life, it makes that connection for them. Next Generation Sequencing is a pretty high-level technique, but in the next generation simulations in Labster, it builds into that technique in a very approachable way, talking about ancient DNA. And I think it really makes some of these, again, abstract and rather complex topics, approachable for students.
Felicia [00:21:39] I completely agree with Caitlin, but I also see the other point as well. I completely understand the other point that it might get in the way. I always look at things like this as opportunities instead of challenges, of problems. So, for example, the molecular cloning simulation, I use it a lot in my lab course, but we do a research project, a directed research project. So in term one, we actually clone a gene into a plasmid. It's not the same gene into the same plasmid as the molecular cloning simulation in Labster. But that's perfect because we'll go through the Labster simulation and I will help the students to understand that simulation and that cloning strategy. And I will use that same basic setup to show them how it works for our specific case. So they learned a couple of different scenarios of how to apply molecular cloning, and I think that's awesome.
April [00:22:38] Well, this has been such a rich conversation from listening to Felicia describe using Labster in an in-person classroom setting, to hearing how Caitlin integrates simulations in her online course. And there's a lot more to say. So stay tuned for part two of our conversation with Felicia Caitlin, and SJ, coming up in the next episode. Until then, keep learning, keep teaching and stay safe.